NEW YORK, New York – The recent execution of 42 prisoners in Iraq has earned strong denouncement from the United Nations through its human rights chief, Navi Pillay. Pillay called the action “obscene and inhuman,” suggesting the Iraqi justice system is too weak to allow any use of the death penalty. Pillay’s comments and the perspective endorsed by the U.N. is weakened by short-sighted idealism. The question to be asked of Iraq is this: do practical alternatives to the death penalty exist?
Iraq is second only to Iran in most executions per year. The United States has the fourth most executions, but also has the highest incarceration rate in the world and the most expensive prison system. Of the two most popular forms of punishment of the last several centuries, incarceration and execution deserve to be compared to each other when people like Pillay criticize the use of one over the other.
With 2.3 million people in prison every year, the U.S. ought to be the gold standard on incarceration; it is a business that costs $74 billion annually and employs 800,000. A number of states have outlawed capital punishment, making the prison system their only recourse. Yet study after study as well as government statistics and even the popular culture surrounding demographics with close proximity to the legal system attest to prison’s inefficacy. In fact, in many cases prison accomplished exactly the opposite of what it was meant to accomplish–hardening and embittering young people locked away for minor crimes, and making them more likely to commit more serious crimes when they are let out and find that social stigma makes steady employment nearly impossible.
The comparison of capital punishment to incarceration yields few positive points to the other side either. Capital punishment in Iraq has been linked with surges in (possibly retributive) violence–exactly the opposite of the intended affect the government claims public executions engenders. Furthermore, the U.N.’s point that the Iraqi legal system is too flawed to allow such a permanent punishment is legitimate–some of the executed never stood trial.
The comparison of incarceration to execution is not meant to create a false dichotomy–other options exist. One of the more famous alternatives is that employed by Norway, which operates on principles which do not degrade the humanity of the inmates. Instead, inmates are set aside from mainstream society in modest comfort and offered psychological help where appropriate; as a result, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. However, the method is not universally applicable.
Punishment, no matter the type, is about the manipulation of the criminal’s mind–its reorganization into a mind aligned with society at large. Therefore, it is sensible to think that what is effective in Norwegian culture may not be effective in America, or Iraq. But the crux of the matter is that Iraq, among many other countries, does not have the resources to commit to a comprehensive prison system. If the government of Iraq believes that capital punishment is worth utilizing as a deterrent to crime, it is their sovereign right (particularly as a member of the cultural area known as the Middle East, which has used and continues to use the death penalty at especially high rates) to do so. Until the U.N. can produce conclusive evidence that executions are being used against the people of Iraq, or any country, in a fundamentally unjust way, they must be more cautious with condemnation. Much as execution may seem inhumane to some, it is the burden of progressives to concoct a new scheme, more functional than the previous. Until such a day, execution and incarceration will remain necessary components of society.
– Alex Pusateri